A Cup of Coffee
Unidentified activist, 1963 or 1964

[Noted down from an unidentified activist and codified by Lillian Smith. Excerpted here. Published in Our Faces Our Words, with profits going to CORE. 1964.]

"Dan," I said; "let's make em open up those places."

"OK by me," said Dan.

That's the way the revolution started for us. We were suddenly there. In it. We'd never been a black boy, like Dick Wright down in Mississippi. We'd never felt invisible, way Ralph Ellison felt. We never felt we were Nothing; I was always sure I was Something.

Well, I admit it: we'd been mighty sheltered; our race had never had it so good, I guess, as the middle-class Negro in some of the upper-South cities had it when I was growing up. I'd never seen a Klansman in my life; had never seen a race murder, never heard a mob on the loose. I knew such things happened, read about them but I guess I pushed them off. They didn't get on my mind.

I knew there were places I couldn't go but having the college we were able to enjoy many advantages even the whites in our city didn't have. Somehow my pride never got tangled up in it; oh, I knew I couldn't enter certain places but I honestly believe I didn't worry about this much more than the average middle-class white southern kid worries who knows he can't join a millionaires' club; I knew about Negro slums, Harlem, South Side but thought about it in the same way most white boys think about slums and bad housing for whites.

I was sound asleep, let me settle for that. My mother was a lady to her fingertips; guess pretended she was exactly like any white lady with access to the same civilities and courtesies.

Well, we were waking up. We dressed in our Sunday clothes to look like the gentlemen we made like we were, took our Bibles and school books and started our sit-in.

But before we sat in, we did read up on what the others had done in Greensboro and Tallahassee. We knew we'd better get with this nonviolence thing. We didn't have time to read Martin Buber or Gandhi or Thoreau but we did take time out to read Martin Luther King — all about redemption through suffering, "absorbing" the cruelties of others ... conciliation ... compassion." Read it.

Dan read it. "My God," Dan said, "what the hell is redemption?"

I stared at him. There was nothing in Franny and Zooey about redemption. Somebody said — Bill, I think — "Maybe we'd better read Camus' The Fall." We decided we didn't have time. We wouldn't say it but I think we felt we'd better get going before we lost our nerve.

"We'll get redeemed, later," Bill said solemnly, "we'd better go sit now." Dan was staring hard at me, it made me tremble, I felt things turning upside down. "Let's get going," I said. Voice sort of loud.

Well, we got going and sat in at Walgreen's. Don't know why we picked that one but we did. Maybe because we knew it was a chain store and might be more sensitive to pressures — but I don't know, we actually weren't doing much thinking.

We walked to the counter, sat down, opened our books. Bill opened the Bible — and read it, too. I had my physics textbook; read one paragraph sixteen times without knowing what was in it.

The white girl behind the counter, awfully young, turned pink then deathly white. She didn't say a word.

Bill looked up, smiled, said quietly, "We'd like some coffee, please, and some doughnuts."

She swallowed, swallowed again, shook her head. "I can't," she said.

She wasn't mean. I felt sorry for her.

"Please go away," she whispered, "they won't let me serve you."

We sat there. Pretty soon, two or three white kids came in, stared at us, one sat down next to me, hummed something, got up, walked out.

We kept on reading. Some more came in; we didn't turn round to see but they were making a lot of noise. Then it happened: that cigarette; the goon stuck the burning thing into my back. Sit tight, don't move, take it; this is nonviolence, I told myself, you have to take it.

A white guy came in, knocked the cigarette out of the other guy's hand; there was scuffling back of me; I didn't turn. A cop came in. Walgreen's closed the counter. We left.

That's how we started. Three weeks later, the lunch counter opened to everybody. By then, we were sitting in at Kress's. There were about twenty-five or more students helping us now, and more high-school kids than we needed; the high-school kids just poured into the movement, completely unafraid, having a ball, but serious, too, deep down.

We felt we had to hold meetings now to decide what to do, what not to do; we had to learn you can't lose your temper, you can't talk back, you can't hit back; you keep everything under control. Two of the college men couldn't make it; we told them to stay out of things until they could control their feelings; the high school kids were cool, and they listened.

"You got to feel compassionate toward the whites," a worker from CORE told us; at our request he had come to train us. So we talked about compassion, forgiveness, talked about absorbing evil through our own suffering.

"You'll find it works," the CORE adviser told us; "if a white has any good in him, he'll respond to compassion and friendly talk; you got to remember that you can hate evil without hating the man who does the evil; it's like a doctor treating the evil of smallpox without hating the man who has it."

"Yeah," said one kid, "but you'd better fear that smallpox." Everybody laughed.

"Sure," said the teacher of nonviolence, "you've got to have sense; be wary, be shrewd, nobody was more shrewd than Gandhi, don't be reckless; but remember: negative nonviolence is not enough; it's got to be positive; you feel all the time that the other man, the one fighting you, can be redeemed; he's got to feel something good in you."

This was tough on most of us; we didn't want to be cowards; we felt it would do us a world of good to punch a white bully in the nose; we wondered if these goons possessed souls; maybe terror had to be met with terror; maybe those cops actually couldn't respond to love.

We talked about this; but we knew, somewhere in us, that strategically a minority can't change things by violence, it would be suicide to try; and we began to see that while one goon may fail to respond to conciliation and friendly reason and this thing we called "love," hundreds of thousands of the public, white and Negro looking on, would begin to respond, begin to understand; and we dimly saw that when this happens change comes, real change. For this is the beginning of dialogue, of response of one human to another.

Well, back to the Kress business. Six girls were sitting in with us, very brave and gay. There was a lot of laughter and singing; maybe no movement in the world's history has ever been such a singing movement as this one. But things were getting tougher. A mean editorial appeared in the morning paper; the editor couldn't grasp the basic idea of truth and compassion in human relations; he honestly didn't believe we as Americans should protest the lack of our civil rights; he seemed to think we should just keep on as our grandfathers had done; but the editor was caught fast in the first decade of the century.

A week later, Kress's opened up. We moved on from Kress's to picketing the biggest department store in town. Somehow, I got in jail. That hurt Mom. Her son. They sent us there because we had "trespassed."

I wanted to say, "Mom, I'm in jail so you can have a cup of coffee when you want one." I didn't say it. That cup of coffee had metamorphosed into every thing Negroes lacked that was rightfully theirs as an beings. It looked like we'd have to open up whole city, the whole region; then we'd have to go North and help them open up things there, too.

Now, here I am in Mississippi; working on a literacy program for the Negro sharecroppers in the Delta, getting them registered to vote; grassroots stuff. (Oh yes — somewhere along the way we stopped wearing our Sunday clothes. We wear jeans now.)

We've collected thousands of books, trying to fix up centers where they can come and read. There're no real schools for the colored kids down here. Parents can't read or write, most of them.

Money? That's funny. You don't sit in restaurants in a place like this. Where would they get money to go to a restaurant? Where would they get clothes to wear? They don't have wants like that. They need. Need everything. This is zero. You begin here in the mud and dust at nothing and inch up. Got to. No other way. Whites are about as bad off as the Negroes. It is like the Indian villages, a Hindu visitor told us, only maybe worse; more fear, more pressure on the Negroes; hostile police.

I didn't know all this existed, had no idea it could exist. In college, we didn't talk about these things, we read Waiting for Godot. What you reckon these kids here in the Delta are waiting for; I wish I knew. They're born and then they start waiting, waiting.

Sometimes at night, you're riding along one of these bumpy rough roads through the fields, everything stretching away from you, sky tilted, stars spilling out of space, now and then a light way off, a and shadows where the shacks are. And you think, They're full of children, real honest-to-God children, and they're all waiting for something to happen here in our country, in the United States; and suddenly the waiting is a ghost choking me and I fight

I shake it off whispering, Tomorrow I'll teach a kid read: "This is a book; I want to know what is in it. One inch; one inch up.